Reformation Day 2012: Remembrance and ReconciliationOct 27th, 2012 | By Bryan Cross | Category: Blog Posts
In the United States, the Reformed and Lutheran traditions celebrate tomorrow (October 28) as Reformation Sunday, in memory of Martin Luther’s act of nailing his ninety-five theses to the door of the Wittenburg Church on October 31, 1517. The celebration is understandable because that event marks the beginning of the Reformation and of the resulting Protestant theological traditions. Catholics too can be grateful for the comprehensive ecclesial reforms implemented at the Council of Trent, which was prompted in part by Luther’s protest. At the same time, as Stanley Hauerwas explained in his well-known Reformation Sunday sermon from 1995, we must not overlook one of the subsequent fruits of Luther’s actions, namely the myriad divisions that now separate those who name the name of the Lord. The positive effects of the Reformation can easily blind us to a condition of disunity among Christians that grieves the heart of Christ. Concerning that disunity, the Second Vatican Council declared, “Such division openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages the holy cause of preaching the Gospel to every creature.”1 Liturgical celebrations shape and form our values and sensibilities. In this way, celebrating Reformation Day in an unqualified way can unintentionally dispose persons to approve tacitly the resulting schisms, or incline persons to complacency and indifference toward them. The problem of complacency toward these divisions extends both to Protestants and Catholics. Ask yourself the following two questions: How many times during a Sunday service or liturgy over the past year have you heard prayers for the reconciliation of Protestants and Catholics? How often is this request among your own prayers?
If a child’s parents are divorced when she is an infant, and she grows up trading weeks and weekends between mom’s place and dad’s place, she might not have any felt perception of the disorder of the situation. For her, the separation of her parents can seem to be the status quo. Having been formed within that environment her entire childhood, her social situation might feel ‘normal’ to her, and she might think nothing of it. Something similar can happen to Christians who grow up in the aftermath of the proliferation of schisms, where in a three mile stretch of road one can count the meeting places of fourteen different Christian denominations, some directly across from each other. Christians can drive such a road daily and think nothing of it. No grief wells up within them, no stab of pain in their heart, no silent prayer lifted to heaven: “Lord, have mercy.” What began as a separation in protest long ago has become so normal that it perceptually disappears, while the separation remains.2 The child described above might even attempt to defend the divorce by claiming that her parents love each other in their hearts. But she knows from her own experience that true love longs for the presence of the beloved. “If we love one another, we strive to deepen our communion and make it perfect.”3
True love is not content with separation. Christians cannot rest content with separation from others who love the Lord, because according to Christ, Christians are to be characterized by their supernatural love for one another.4 The movement aimed at reconciling and reuniting presently divided Christians is prompted by the Holy Spirit, and is referred to as the ecumenical movement. In charity it pursues agreement in truth, never compromise: “In matters of faith, compromise is in contradiction with God who is Truth.”5
In the century following Luther, the conflict between Protestants and Catholics was often bloody and violent. Pockets of that violence have remained even until very recent times.
Jesus “broke down the dividing wall of hostility … through the Cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end”; (Eph. 2:14).
The “Peace Wall” in Belfast is a visible expression of the wall that still separates Protestants and Catholics all over the world, not from acts of violence against each other, but from the fullness of visible communion in the bond of peace. The wall separating Protestants and Catholics is a stumbling block to a world looking for the path to true community, and a conveniently accessible means for discrediting and dismissing the Christian claims, in the hands of those who seek the extinction of the Christian faith. Pope Paul VI wrote,
As evangelizers, we must offer Christ’s faithful not the image of people divided and separated by unedifying quarrels, but the image of people who are mature in faith … [T]he destiny of evangelization is certainly bound up with the witness of unity given by the Church … At this point we wish to emphasize the sign of unity among all Christians as the way and instrument of evangelization. The division among Christians is a serious reality which impedes the very work of Christ.6
Why did Christ pray for all those who would believe in Him, “that they may all be one”?7 Why is unity the first mark of the Church stated in the Nicene Creed? Why did St. Paul exhort the Corinthian Christians “by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment”?8 Why did he instruct them that God had designed the Body of Christ “so that there may be no division in the Body”?9 Why does St. Jude teach that those who cause divisions between Christians are “devoid of the Spirit”?10 The answer is that the Church is the witness to the world of Who God is. The unity of the Church is to reflect the truth that God is one, as proclaimed in the Shema: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”11 A proliferation of sects suggests instead some sort of polytheism.
The unity of the Church likewise reflects the perfect communion of Christ with the Father. The Spirit of Christ is this communion, and the unity of those filled with Christ’s Spirit is a participation in the divine communion of the Blessed Trinity. In 1995 Pope John Paul II wrote:
This unity, which the Lord has bestowed on his Church and in which he wishes to embrace all people, is not something added on, but stands at the very heart of Christ’s mission. Nor is it some secondary attribute of the community of his disciples. Rather, it belongs to the very essence of this community. God wills the Church, because he wills unity, and unity is an expression of the whole depth of his agape.
In effect, this unity bestowed by the Holy Spirit does not merely consist in the gathering of people as a collection of individuals. It is a unity constituted by the bonds of the profession of faith, the sacraments and hierarchical communion. The faithful are one because, in the Spirit, they are in communion with the Son and, in him, share in his communion with the Father: “Our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 Jn 1:3). For the Catholic Church, then, the communion of Christians is none other than the manifestation in them of the grace by which God makes them sharers in his own communion, which is his eternal life.12
The gospel of Christ is not merely or even fundamentally information. The gospel is God’s gift granting us participation in the divine community made visible on earth in the communion of believers, through our partaking of one sacramental loaf, having been incorporated into this community through “one baptism.”13 In this sense, unity is the gospel, the “heart of Christ’s mission.” This is why in His high-priestly prayer Jesus twice indicates that the conversion of the world depends on its witnessing the unity of His followers.14 One cannot be passionate about missions and apathetic concerning schisms. Evangelism is not merely from individual to individual, but from the City of God to the whole world. Man is evangelized and saved from sin not only as individual, but also in his social dimension in communion with other human persons. The community Christ has inaugurated evangelizes the world as a city set on a hill,15 and man is saved through incorporation into and communion within this divinely established community. Jesus’ words in John 17 thus reveal that when the world sees Christians divided and quarreling, not only is the Trinity obscured, the message they receive is that Christ was not from God. Pope John Paul II noted this when he wrote,
“[T]he lack of unity among Christians contradicts the Truth which Christians have the mission to spread and, consequently, it gravely damages their witness. … When non-believers meet missionaries who do not agree among themselves, even though they all appeal to Christ, will they be in a position to receive the true message? Will they not think that the Gospel is a cause of division, despite the fact that it is presented as the fundamental law of love?”16
And in 2009 Pope Benedict XVI wrote:
[W]e must have at heart the unity of all believers. Their disunity, their disagreement among themselves, calls into question the credibility of their talk of God. Hence the effort to promote a common witness by Christians to their faith – ecumenism – is part of the supreme priority.17
The Apostle John tells us that Jesus died “to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.”18 When Christians are divided from one another, they oppose the very purpose of the Cross, the purpose for which Christ suffered and died. Sins against unity are among those for which Christ died.19 That calls us in humility to put away such sins, and pursue reconciliation in charity.
According to the International Bulletin of Missionary Research, the rate of proliferation of divisions over the last century looks like this:
1,600: Christian denominations worldwide in 1900.
18,800: In 1970.
42,000: In 2011.20
These divisions between Christians imply to the world that the Cross of Christ is powerless:
If [believers] wish truly and effectively to oppose the world’s tendency to reduce to powerlessness the Mystery of Redemption, they must profess together the same truth about the Cross.21
This is why we cannot ignore the problem of divisions between Christians; such divisions testify against the message we declare to the world, and if we accept these divisions or ignore them, we contradict ourselves as Christians. Jesus taught us that a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand.22 We know that one of Satan’s tactics is to weaken the Christian witness by tempting us to divide rather than faithfully retain unity or patiently and diligently pursue reconciliation. The former option is easier, but the latter is the way of suffering, the way of the cross. When sects are multiplied into the thousands, those person who still do not know Christ have more difficulty determining which version of the gospel is true. The proliferation of schisms eclipses the supernatural unity that is to characterize believers, and by which the world is to recognize that Christ is from God. In the eyes of the world Christianity can look like the disunity of Babel, when the Church is called to be that by which the disunity of Babel is healed.23
When widespread disunity between Christians persists chronically, what happens to a society? It becomes secularized, and eventually returns to paganism. Contentment with divisions and the inability to overcome them render the gospel powerless. The secularism of Europe today can be traced in large part to the divisions that arose in the sixteenth century and became inexorably fixed in place at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. The peace Christ offers to the world is not primarily a subjective feeling of inner calm. It is not a natural peace achieved by natural methods, breathing exercises, meditation or signed treaties between nations or princes. The peace Christ offers is supernatural, and cannot be derive from men by merely human efforts. Christ’s peace is a share in His own communion with the Father. The vertical dimension of this peace cannot be separated from the horizontal. We cannot love Christ and hate other members of His family. Peace with Christ is not only reflected in but even effected by peace with His family on earth. For this reason, the unity of Christians directly manifests to the world the peace Christ offers. When Christians are fragmented into a multiplicity of divided communions, at best Christ’s peace is hidden and the gospel itself is obscured; at worst the gospel itself is repudiated. The Second Vatican Council observed three effects of disunity among Christians:
The restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council. Christ the Lord founded one Church and one Church only. However, many Christian communions present themselves to men as the true inheritors of Jesus Christ; all indeed profess to be followers of the Lord but differ in mind and go their different ways, as if Christ Himself were divided. Such division openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages the holy cause of preaching the Gospel to every creature.24
This is not a new observation concerning the effects of schism. At the end of the first century St. Clement of Rome wrote concerning the Corinthian schism:
Your schism has subverted [the faith of] many, has discouraged many, has given rise to doubt in many, and has caused grief to us all. And still your sedition continues. (c. 46)25
In light of the evidence recounted above, it is evident that we must not be complacent or indifferent concerning the divisions that separate Christians. But what can we do?
We can pray. As Pope John Paul II expressed, “We should therefore pray to the divine Spirit for the grace to be genuinely self-denying, humble, gentle in the service of others, and to have an attitude of brotherly generosity towards them.”26 The reconciliation of divided Christians is a supernatural work, and requires the operation of grace in our hearts. We cannot achieve this end by merely human efforts. According to the Second Vatican Council,
[H]uman powers and capacities cannot achieve this holy objective-the reconciling of all Christians in the unity of the one and only Church of Christ. It is because of this that the Council rests all its hope on the prayer of Christ for the Church, on our Father’s love for us, and on the power of the Holy Spirit.27
The ecumenical movement of the twentieth century is a cause for gratitude. At the same time, in my experience, prayer for the reunion of Protestants and Catholics does not have a prominent or consistent place in public prayers either in Protestant or Catholic communities, nor is such reunion a frequent subject of conversation among Catholics or Protestants. Silence about the Protestant-Catholic division, whether in our prayers or conversations, suggests that reconciliation is not very important to us.
We can also enter into dialogue and cooperate in corporal works of mercy. Recently when Ireland’s first abortion clinic opened, there was a sign of hope as Protestants and Catholics came together to protest.28 That kind of cooperation may be easier than dialogue, but both are important. We are all called to enter into sincere, charitable and committed dialogue oriented at reaching agreement in the truth. In an age of tweets and ‘sound-bites,’ we as a culture are becoming less capable of authentic and fruitful dialogue. To enter into dialogue, we first have to acquire certain dispositions (e.g. patience, perseverance, humility, the habit of truly listening to others with charity) and commitments (e.g. to a mutual activity of exchange, investigation and evaluation by which together we come to agreement concerning the truth), through which over longer periods of time we can come to understand each other, eventually determine the fundamental causes of our disagreements, and attain to agreement concerning the truth. A forum such as Called To Communion can help foster those dispositions, but ultimately it must be part of who we are as persons. And the internet, though a useful tool, is not an adequate substitute for face to face dialogue. The most authentic dialogues are face to face, because we are embodied beings, and our communication is not only by verbal information, but also in our bodies, our actions, even in our presence.
The responsibility for reconciliation and reunion does not belong to the clergy alone, but rests on all Christians. The Second Vatican Council declared, “Concern for restoring unity pertains to the whole Church, faithful and clergy alike. It extends to everyone, according to the ability of each.”29 And Pope John Paul II wrote, “Christ calls everyone to renew their commitment to work for full and visible communion.”30
In light of the evidence above, how could anyone who loves Christ willfully refuse to do everything in his or her power to help effect reconciliation? Pope John Paul II reflected this when he wrote:
[Believers] cannot fail to meet this challenge. Indeed, how could they refuse to do everything possible, with God’s help, to break down the walls of division and distrust, to overcome obstacles and prejudices which thwart the proclamation of the Gospel of salvation in the Cross of Jesus, the one Redeemer of man, of every individual?31
A Christian Community which believes in Christ and desires, with Gospel fervour, the salvation of mankind can hardly be closed to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, who leads all Christians towards full and visible unity. Here an imperative of charity is in question, an imperative which admits of no exception. Ecumenism is not only an internal question of the Christian Communities. It is a matter of the love which God has in Jesus Christ for all humanity; to stand in the way of this love is an offence against him and against his plan to gather all people in Christ.32
Lord, as we recall the events leading to and following the Reformation, we ask you to “increase the unity of all Christians until they reach full communion.”33 Turn our hearts in humility and love away from complacency and indifference toward our divisions, and toward reconciliation with all those who truly seek and love you. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
- Unitatis Redintegratio, 1. [↩]
- See “Reformation Sunday 2011: How Would Protestants Know When to Return?” [↩]
- Ut Unum Sint, 21. [↩]
- St. John 13:35. [↩]
- Ut Unum Sint, 18. Because of the relation of love and truth, true ecumenism is not about compromising what one believes to be true and essential. See “Truth Speaks in Love” and “Two Ecumenicisms.” [↩]
- Pope Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, 77. [↩]
- John 17:21. [↩]
- 1 Corinthians 1:10. [↩]
- 1 Corinthians 12: 24-25. [↩]
- Jude 1:19. [↩]
- Deuteronomy 6:4. [↩]
- Ut Unum Sint, 9. [↩]
- 1 Cor. 10:17; Eph. 4:5. [↩]
- John 17:21, 23. [↩]
- Mt. 5:14. [↩]
- Ut Unum Sint, 98. [↩]
- Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church. [↩]
- John 11:51-52. [↩]
- “All the sins of the world were gathered up in the saving sacrifice of Christ, including the sins committed against the Church’s unity.” Ut Unum Sint, 34. [↩]
- Source. [↩]
- Pope John Paul II’s address following the Way of the Cross on Good Friday (1 April 1994), cited in Ut Unum Sint, 1. [↩]
- Mt. 12:25; Mk. 3:24; Lk. 11:17. [↩]
- “Pentecost, Babel, and the Ecumenical Imperative.” [↩]
- Unitatis Redintegratio, 1. [↩]
- Source. [↩]
- Ut Unum Sint, 26. [↩]
- Unitatis Redintegratio, 24. [↩]
- Source. [↩]
- Unitatis Redintegratio, 5. [↩]
- Ut Unum Sint, 100. [↩]
- Ut Unum Sint, 2. [↩]
- Ut Unum Sint, 99. [↩]
- Ut Unum Sint, 3. [↩]